A Dictionary Definition of Character

We’ve all heard speeches or seen presentations that begin with a dictionary definition of the topic to be covered. These definitions come complete with syllable divisions and pronunciation guides. Usually, it seems the only purpose of  dragging poor Webster into the picture is simply to add a false seal of academic authority to the presentation without adding any pertinent information. Sometimes, I think people do it simply because so many other people do it that way.

Now that I’ve said that, I humbly present a dictionary definition of character, complete with syllable divisions and pronunciation guide. (Go ahead and roll your eyes at me. I would.) I think it’s appropriate though, since the definition is my topic of discussion.

In the spare bedroom, I have a bookshelf. On that bookshelf is a three-volume copy of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary that my parents received with an Encyclopædia Britannica in nineteen eighty-five. Because it contains detailed definitions, this is my go-to dictionary when I need an exhaustive list of meanings.

Here is the entry heading for character.

char·ac·ter \ˈkarəktə(r), -rēk- also ˈker-\ n -s [alter. (influenced by L character) of earlier caracter, fr. ME, fr. MF caractère, fr. L character mark, sign, distinctive quality, fr. Gk charaktēr, fr. charassein to sharpen, cut into furrows, engrave; akin to Lith žerti to scratch, scrape]

Following that, there are a great many definitions of the word, since it has meanings as diverse as a letter or number (such as the characters on a page), or a fictional person (a character in a play), or the following two definitions, in which we are primarily interested.

9 : reputation esp. when good <his association with evil companions detracted from his ~> 10 : a composite of good moral qualities typically of moral excellence and firmness blended with resolution, self-discipline, high ethics, force, and judgement <that stiffening of the moral fiber which we call ~ —F.A.Swinnerton> <his eldest brother . . . had not ~ enough to reproach me —John Galsworthy>

Character vs. Reputation

So, one meaning of character is synonymous with reputation. It may be true that the word character can be used in place of the word reputation, but I doubt the two concepts are equal: A good deceiver may have terrible character but a sterling reputation; conversely, an upright person may have a poor reputation, due to false gossip or other causes outside their control, yet have excellent character. In general, one’s reputation is probably indicative of one’s character, but I believe it is a mistake to equate the two.

The Moral Aspect

Let’s look at the next definition then. It is a little more complex. The definition begins with the phrase, “a composite of good moral qualities…”. That seems to make sense. When we say a person has “character” we usually mean that person has good moral qualities. But do any and all good moral qualities fit the bill? Webster goes on to enumerate some examples of those “good moral qualities” by adding, “… typically of moral excellence and firmness blended with resolution, self-discipline, high ethics, force, and judgement”.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Moral excellence, to me, signifies someone who is beyond reproach—someone who doesn’t lie, cheat, or steal—a man you wouldn’t worry about if he wanted to date your daughter. Firmness, in this context, seems to refer to unwavering principles. When a person has principles, you always knows where he stands; you know what his answer will be before you even ask the question.

Resolution, is simply the will to see something through to the end. Self-discipline means the person with character doesn’t need to be forced to do a thing; the motivation comes from within.

High ethics are apparent in the way one relates to others: Professional trades, such as law and medicine, are governed by ethics rules, which proscribe actions that may be considered “shady” or “not above board”—actions that are not necessarily immoral, but which might make others consider the person’s motives in a negative light.

Force is an interesting item in this list. How does force figure in to character. My first reaction to the word was negative. I imagined a powerful individual who gets what he wants through intimidation (physical or otherwise). That doesn’t jive with the rest of the definition though, so it can’t be right. I turned to force in the dictionary and found that it is another word with many definitions. It can mean “active power” or “cause of change” or even “moral or mental strength”. These meanings make a lot more sense, and do seem like an ingredient of character.

Finally, judgement. In order to put all the aforementioned qualities to use, a person of character must be able to observe and compare people and circumstances, and must be able to arrive at decisions. For instance, resolution does no good if the goal is not worthwhile, and force can be evil when used wrongly. Judgement is the rudder that steers the ship of character.

A Few More Observations

After I scoured through the two definitions above, I went back to the others, and to the etymology included in the heading entry. I wondered how the word, character, ended up with so many different meanings. I wondered if they were really all that different.

The link between one’s moral qualities and the letter A, for instance, doesn’t seem all that great at first, but look at how the word formed. Character came from a Latin word meaning “mark, sign, [or] distinctive quality”. A printed character is recognizable because of it’s distinctive qualities; it is more than just a few random scribbles. We can distinguish the letter A from the letter B because the ways in which they formed are distinct from one another. Similarly, we can recognize a person’s character by the way their mix of moral qualities is distinct from someone else’s. The Online Etymological dictionary lists a Greek word, kharakter, which means (among other things) a “symbol or imprint on the soul,” which is a very poetical way of putting it.

While we’re waxing poetic, look back at Webster’s heading entry for character. The earliest etymological entry is for the Greek charassein, which means “to sharpen, cut into furrows, [or] engrave”. The connection to written characters is obvious, but I think it’s a great metaphor for personal character as well.

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